NJ Transit resists calls to increase its state operating subsidy
Echoing the calls of transit and environmental advocacy groups, the second-ranking Senate Democrat Thursday called for up to $75 million in additional state funding for NJ Transit operations next year.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said the proposed $25 million net increase for NJ Transit’s operations doesn’t even cover a projected $35 million in higher labor costs.
“We have got to give you the resources that you need to make the barest improvements in our daily service,” Weinberg said.
Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti said she’s not asking for the additional money and didn’t answer a question about how $25 million, $50 million or $75 million would be used if it gets provided.
“We don’t ever want you to think we’re not asking for more money because we don’t think we could use it. We’re trying to say we’re going to take what you give, and we’re going to make the best of every dollar,” she said.
“I can’t say that I have often in my long years in the Legislature appeared before a committee on the opposite side of the bureaucracy trying to convince them they need more money,” Weinberg said.
NJT’s operating budget for next year is projected at $2.3 billion, up 1 percent. The state subsidy is projected to account for $619 million of that.
The funding also includes $129 million from the Turnpike Authority – an amount that’s actually a $25 million decline from the current $154 million.
Weinberg said she sees no reason to trim the Turnpike Authority’s subsidy to NJ Transit, given that its roads are in good condition and NJ Transit is in dire straits.
“Does the New Jersey Turnpike really need it back this year, in this budget year, at this time?”
Gutierrez-Scaccetti says NJ Transit’s bigger financial problem is that it redirects $460 million in capital funding to cover operating costs.
“Will $25 million more make a difference to New Jersey Transit? Not really,” she said.
Gutierrez-Scaccetti says funding for the New Jersey Turnpike’s capital plan has gotten thin after year after year of transfers to support NJ Transit, rather than projects such as fixing bridges or widening the original, two-lane section of the Turnpike still used in South Jersey.
“Sometime back in 2012, there was a toll increase, and all the money that toll increase generated was wasted. And we know that,” she said. “Unfortunately it was hundreds of millions of dollars that should have went to projects and did not.”
Janna Chernetz, deputy director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said NJ Transit needs the $25 million more than the Turnpike Authority – though agrees that transit’s major problem is the use of capital funds for operating costs.
“One of the biggest and most debilitating funding practices that New Jersey Transit participates in is moving that money from capital to operating. That needs to be reduced. That’s the priority,” Chernetz said. “That’s where we need to be putting money towards, to keep the capital dollars available for capital investments and boosting the operating budget with reliable and dedicated revenue sources.
“And that’s not going to happen overnight,” she said. “It’s not going to happen in one budget cycle or two budget cycles. But we at least need to have a plan to wean off these cannibalistic funding practices because it’s really stifling the agency.”
There’s a difference of opinion among high-ranking Senate Democrats about reducing the Turnpike’s transit subsidy.
A half hour after Weinberg made her point to the Murphy administration officials, Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, the budget committee chairman, capped the budget hearing by hailing the plan.
“We have stopped the diversion from the New Jersey Turnpike,” Sarlo said. “That may have been touched upon, but I just want to echo that I think that’s a positive move in the right direction.”
That left Weinberg clearly unhappy.
“Well, my budget chair is a little ill-informed on that issue and I’ll certainly help straighten him out,” Weinberg said.